Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) rode resplendent into Paris on Sunday, shining victorious in the yellow jersey and seemingly immune to the danger that befell nearly everyone around him.
The 2014 Tour de France was marked not only by Nibali’s seamless dominance, but also by the chaos that unfolded in his wake.
Pounded by extreme weather throughout much of the race, the peloton succumbed one by one to illness, crashes, and the accumulative effects of the punishment of a challenging course.
When Nibali stood tall, those around him crumbled, cracked, fell ill, or simply fell down.
Nibali admitted that he took his decisive time differences in the first week of the Tour, particularly over the cobblestones in stage 5. His deft bike-handling skills and Astana’s bulldozer tactics over the pavé put him in the yellow jersey for good.
“I was already in the lead [when others crashed out]. I also showed I could climb well,” Nibali said when someone suggested that his yellow jersey might come with an asterisk. “It’s unfortunate that Froome and Contador are not here. I was focused on my race and managed to avoid troubles. My team did a great job.”
The Tour’s final GC in Paris is marked just as much by the riders who stand atop the final classification as by those who are not there.
Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), sprinter Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and defending champion Chris Froome (Sky) were all gone in the first five days. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), who arrived at the Tour perhaps in his best form ever, never made it out of the Vosges. Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), who was hoping to capitalize on his dramatic Critérium du Dauphiné victory, flamed out as well in a dramatic battle into Oyonnox.
The sense of frustration, regret, and what could have happened settled across the peloton.
“I am sure Alberto could have battled for this Tour, even with the time losses on the cobblestones,” said Tinkoff manager Bjarne Riis. “Alberto prepared for this Tour like no other. He was in the best condition of his career. But we’ll never know …”
With several marquee names missing, others were ready to step into the void, but the ravages of cold, rainy weather, coupled with the demands of tension-filled racing across England and northern France, set a chest infection rampaging across the peloton.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) was poised to ride onto the podium, but he was zapped by a chest bug that saw him go on antibiotics for a week. He rode through the worst of it, but the collective fatigued caught him out in the Pyrénées. One bad day cost him a shot at the podium, but he recovered to ride to tying his career-best fifth.
“I learned never to give up. I really had to fight through a lot,” van Garderen said Saturday. “I am really proud of my guys and what I did. It shows you can take your lumps, and get back up, and fight to the end.”
World champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) started his first Tour as outright rider, but his body too succumbed to the rigors of Mother Nature.
Richie Porte was Team Sky’s Plan B who moved up to be “Plan A-” after Froome crashed heavily in stage 4. By the time Froome was out the next day, Porte was second overall, with a chance of a lifetime to ride onto the podium. The plucky Tasmanian also fell ill, but unlike van Garderen, who could bounce back, Porte sunk out of the GC for good in two difficult stages across the Alps.
Sky, which left the Tour empty-handed after dominating and winning the past two editions, vowed to return to its “all-for-one” game plan next year. Bad luck is simply part of racing.
“Not many people can win this race,” Sky’s David Brailsford said. “If you’ve got one of those guys who you think can win, my thinking is, let’s go and try to win it. If that doesn’t work, then it’s pretty unlikely that anything else will work, so you go all for ‘Plan A’ if you want to win.”
In sharp contrast, Tinkoff managed to win three mountain stages in a row and put Rafal Majka into the best climber’s jersey, further evidence that perhaps Tinkoff was the deepest team in the peloton.
Those who survived the crashes and the illnesses then faced a brutal final week across the Pyrénées as summer heat finally enveloped the Tour.
Others simply ran out of gas.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) also had an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, riding out of the Alps second overall, but he was wildly inconsistent across the Pyrénées. Instead of attacking, Valverde became the hunted, with the French riders Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) sticking it to him at Hautacam. Unable to respond in Saturday’s time trial, a weary and whipped Valverde could only muster fourth overall.
“I tried as hard as I could, but the legs didn’t respond,” Valverde said. “This Tour was difficult, above all in the final week. There was no chance to recover.”
Others suffered as well. Bauke Mollema (Belkin), who is expected to join Trek next season, was hoping for a top-5 result, but he too was hampered by a chest infection and couldn’t ride with the best in the mountains, finishing 10th.
“The crashes marked this Tour, and I know with Froome and Contador in the race, I probably wouldn’t be on the podium,” said runner-up Peraud. “That doesn’t stop me from feeling an enormous happiness and satisfaction to finish on the podium.”
In the end, Nibali won because he was able to avoid the traps that ensnarled so many others. He was by far the strongest of the riders remaining in the peloton, and there is no need to put an asterisk next to his yellow jersey. He won four stages, wore the yellow jersey nearly from start to finish, and was fastest among the GC riders in Saturday’s final time trial.
Crashing and illness, and avoiding them both, are part of racing. Nibali did both immaculately.